death penalty news—-TEXAS

March 19


Spring Break in the Belly of the Beast—-At the Anti-Death Penalty
Alternative Spring Break in Texas, students learn what it takes to fight
state killing — against all odds.

It's easy to pity the Texas death penalty abolitionist. The Lone Star
State is widely recognized as the "belly of the beast" when it comes to
capital punishment. Since 1982, Texas has executed 405 individuals, more
than the rest of the nation combined. Harris County, which includes
Houston, would rank second in the nation for executions if it were its own
state. Quite simply, no state in the union is more willing to administer
lethal injections to the convicted. This would not be possible without
broad statewide support for capital punishment, and an accompanying sense
of "frontier justice" infused with the specter of Jim Crow.

Organizing against this state killing machine can be grueling — even
devastating. Yet there are reasons to press forward. Take the recent
victory in the case of Kenneth Foster, Jr., a man sentenced to death for
driving the car occupied by a man named Mauriceo Brown when he shot and
killed Michael LaHood, Jr. in 1996. (Yes, sentenced to death for driving a
car. Welcome to Texas). We saved Kenneth's life by building a vibrant and
well-organized movement that left Governor Rick Perry with no other choice
than to, for the 1st time in Texas history, grant a commutation on the
basis of grassroots pressure.

Another reason for hope in Texas comes every March in the form of the
Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break. Since 2005, high school and
college students skip drinking on the beach with their friends to travel
to Austin to participate in workshops, lectures and direct actions, all
designed to train them to be better advocates for abolishing the death
penalty. The annual event was founded by the Texas Moratorium Network and
is currently run by Texas Students Against the Death Penalty, with the
sponsorship of Campus Progress. Over the years, it has also enlisted the
tactical support of legislative aids, lawyers, lobbyists, and grassroots
activists to help build and run events.

Scott Cobb of the Texas Moratorium Network has compared Spring Break to
the Freedom Summers of the Civil Rights era. Like the northern activists
who traveled south to fight segregation, Alternative Spring Break
participants travel from across the country to ground zero in the death
penalty fight, to both learn and contribute to the struggle. The death
penalty has been shown time and again to disproportionately impact the
poor and ethnic minorities, punish the innocent, and fail to deter crime.
As I have told students in the debating workshops I have run in the past
couple years, the death penalty is a microcosm of far deeper social
problems and should be targeted as such.

Life and Death Lessons

I first hopped onboard the Alternative Spring Break in 2006. My group, the
Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) accompanied the students to
Huntsville, Texas, where a man named Tommie Hughes was scheduled for
execution. On the bus down to Huntsville, where all Texas executions are
carried out, members of the CEDP engaged the students in a debate about
the value of vocal and political protest versus the traditional silent
vigils that often take place outside the execution chamber. We all
eventually agreed to lead the small crowd outside the Huntsville unit in
protest chants up until the moment Hughes was to be killed. When the
execution started, we would fall silent out of respect.

Across from the "Walls Unit," where executions are carried out, is the
"hospitality" building. This is where the families of the condemned and
their witnesses spend the day awaiting the 6:00 p.m. execution. We watched
as Tommie Hughes' family left the small building for the much larger
facility where they would watch their loved one die. Less then half an
hour later, we watched them walk back. Tommie Hughes was dead. Texas had
killed another. The students of the 2006 Alternative Spring Break had seen
the reality of state killing up close.

The next year, the 2007 Alternative Spring Break coincided with Senate
committee hearings on Texas's "Jessica Law," which would extend the death
penalty to convicted child sex offenders. A number of high-profile death
penalty opponents, including exonerated prisoners Kerry Max Cook and
Shujaa Graham, helped out with the Spring Break and testified before the
committee. Students also testified. Though Jessica's Law was eventually
passed, the opportunity to speak truth to power in such a way, plus a
rally downtown that concluded the spring break, were not in vain. The
students who participated gained a real lesson in grassroots struggle
through losses and victories.

Spring Break 2008: The Case of Rodney Reed

This year's spring break took place between March 10 and March 14th,
coinciding with important developments in a high-profile Texas death row
case. Rodney Reed is a black man who has lived on Texas' death row since
1998, convicted of the rape and murder of a white woman named Stacey
Stites. Though a semen DNA sample connects Reed to Stites' body, other
evidence in the case strongly implicates a former police officer named
Jimmy Fennell, who was engaged to Stites at the time of her death. Several
witnesses — none of whom were called to that stand during the trial —
claim that Reed and Stites were having a consensual sexual affair
(explaining the semen sample) at the time she was killed. Fennell, who
failed two lie detector tests when asked if he strangled his fianc, is
believed by many to have lashed out at Stites in a jealous rage and then
framed Reed for the crime.

The CEDP has organized alongside the family of Rodney Reed for years to
win a new trial — and an upcoming hearing before the Texas Court of
Criminal Appeals may result in just that. Fennell was recently indicted
for kidnapping and raping a woman in his custody. The charges have shined
new light on the Reed case and bolstered the defense's claim that Fennell
is an explosive, misogynistic and potentially violent individual. For all
these reasons, the CEDP and the Alternative Spring Break organizers saw
fit to build the week's events around Rodney Reed's case.

On March 12, the spring breakers held a "people's tribunal" in front of
the Texas State Capitol. A theatrical event that adopted the form of a
court hearing — complete with a "judge" in a gown and a "prisoner" in
stripes — participants took the microphone and spoke out against capital
punishment. People talked about racism, the opposition to state killing by
murder victims' families, international human rights standards, and the
myth of deterrence, as passerbyers stopped to listen in. We described the
conditions and dimensions of a death row prison cell (6-by-7 feet) to show
how "cruel and unusual" begins well before the condemned enters the death

That night, the students, along with several local activists, made signs
and banners for a rally in support of Rodney Reed. Starting in front of
the Capitol, the March 13th rally included the Spring Break participants
and several local activists. After a march downtown, the group returned to
the Capitol to speak some final words into the bullhorn and display their
signs for passing traffic. "The turnout wasn't the biggest we've ever
seen, but it was vibrant and inspiring," said CEDP activist Lily Hughes.
Hooman Hedayati, of the CEDP and Texas Students Against the Death Penalty,
called the 2008 Spring Break a success. "A group of energetic students
came to Austin to learn to be better activists and were able to pull off a
direct action for Rodney Reed."

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals hears the Reed case on March 19th,
after which they may take as long as they please to make a decision.
Whether Reed wins a new trial or not, one thing remains certain: the
struggle will continue. As I write this, the Supreme Court is determining
whether Kentucky's method of lethal injection constitutes cruel and
unusual punishment. Nationally, more individuals than ever prefer life
without parole to the death penalty. We are living in exciting times in
the history of American capital punishment. If the students who came to
this and previous years' Alternative Spring Breaks left with one lesson,
it was hopefully that such change is in no way automatic. Through each
loss and victory lie a growing number of committed activists who do the
unglamorous work of attending meetings, making pickets, and fretting about
strategic choices. As the students bid goodbye to Austin, one can only
hope that they left the belly of the beast with a sense of not only what
is possible, but what is necessary to wage an uphill battle against a
particularly macabre expression of state power that will not leave the
stage of history without a fight.